The Europeans, no 5: Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle, one of the first true chemists, was a pivotal figure in the development of experimental science
Robert Boyle, considered the founder of modern analytical chemistry, was born at Lismore Castle in Co Waterford in 1627, the 14th child of the earl of Cork. He is perhaps best known for Boyle’s Law (the absolute pressure and volume of a gas are inversely proportional when temperature is kept constant), but his most important work was not in physics but in chemistry, the study of what things are made of.
Boyle showed an early interest in science. In his mid-teens he went to Italy with a tutor and in Florence discovered “the new paradoxes of the great star-gazer Galileo”, whose books, he noted, had been confuted by the pope by decree – since, as he observed, they could not in any other way be confuted. The holy father, he speculated, must have been “loth to have the stability of that earth questioned, in which he had established his kingdom”.
Boyle was an alchemist as well as a chemist. There is indeed no neat separation between what we now consider pseudoscience and real science, just as there is no neat progression in history from one “age” to another (from an age of belief to an age of discovery, for example). In the 17th and 18th centuries, discovery followed discovery, but elements of belief from earlier systems were slow to dissolve.
The Hamburg alchemist Hennig Brand diverted the wealth of two rich wives into his tireless search for “the philosopher’s stone”, the substance which would turn base metals into gold. His method was to let urine stand for several days until it had become very pungent, then boil it up into a thick syrup, a process which produced small quantities not of gold but of phosphorus – the first new element to be discovered since those, like copper, gold and silver, that had been known since antiquity.
Phosphorus had wide appeal for its dramatic qualities – it glowed in the dark and burned fiercely – and first appeared in public as a sort of fairground attraction. In 1680, Boyle, having found out Brand’s secret recipe, made phosphorus himself; later he employed it to ignite a sulphur-coated splint, an anticipation of that great boon to civilisation, the safety match.
Breaking with tradition of secrecy
Breaking with the alchemical tradition of secrecy, he published details of his experiments, many of which concerned analysis of the makeup of elements, mixtures and compounds, and studies in the chemistry of combustion and respiration. Traditionally, there had been thought to be four elements (substances which could not be broken down further) – earth, air, fire and water. By the time of Lavoisier, in 1789, there were 33. We are now at 118.
With other researchers (then known as “natural philosophers”, not scientists) Boyle was active in what was called the Invisible College, which in the early 1660s was transformed into the Royal Society, an organisation that published learned papers and met to discuss them with a view to compiling “a complete system . . . for explicating all phenomena . . . and recording a rational account of the causes of things”.
The society quickly became a model for similar bodies in other countries: Boyle and his collaborators and associates, among them Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, had created the essential institutional and procedural model for the future development of experimental science.
Notwithstanding his views on Galileo and the pope, Boyle remained an enthusiast for the Christian religion. He donated large sums to missionary societies working in the east and collaborated with Bishop Narcissus Marsh (of Marsh’s Library) to fund the translation of the Bible into Irish, a language he had been familiar with in his early childhood.
What to read
Robert Boyle’s essential text, The Sceptical Chymist, is available free from the Gutenberg Project at gutenberg.org/ebooks/22914.
Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution is published by University of Chicago Press